7:15 PM (3) Connecticut vs. (2) San Diego State (CBS)
How they got here
UConn: W 81-52 over Bucknell and 69-58 over Cincinnati
SDSU: W 68-50 over Northern Colorado and 71-64 (2OT) over Temple
The two players to watch in this contest are UConn guard Kemba Walker (23.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.5 apg) and San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard (15.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg), two players who will earn their fair share of All-America honors by the time the season ends. Walker's been outstanding all season long, beginning with an impressive takeover of the Maui Invitational and ending (regular season) with the MVP award at the Big East Championship. The key for the Huskies reaching this point in the season was the progression of the youngsters, because without the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi UConn is most likely watching a game like this on TV.
Lamb is third on the team in minutes and second in scoring, and his game reminds many of UConn great Richard Hamilton. Averaging 15 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, the freshman wing has reached double figures in each of the last seven games. He, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith (who draws the defensive assignment of guarding Kawhi Leonard) have played with more confidence as the season't worn on, making the Huskies a better team with a little more balance than many give them credit for. Oriakhi leads the way on the boards but he's going to need help from the likes of Smith, Tyler Olander and Charles Okwandu if UConn is to keep the Aztecs at bay.
UConn is a slightly better offensive rebounding team but they aren't as good as San Diego State when it comes to keeping their opponents off the glass. In addition to Leonard, head coach Steve Fisher can look to Brian Carlwell, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White in the frontcourt for minutes. San Diego State does a lot of their damage offensively in the half court; they have the ability to run but more times than not prefer to use their big men to make things happen. But they don't get many of their points from the foul line, with 17.3% of their points coming from the charity stripe. Connecticut on the other hand scores 21.3% of their points on free throws.
The Aztecs are also experienced in the backcourt, led by D.J. Gay. Gay will likely be one of the players assigned to Walker at some point, with the strategy of switching defenders being something that Coach Fisher used for Jimmer Fredette in conference play. Gay is also one of SDSU's big shot makers, a player who's a safe bet to have the ball in his hands late. Chase Tapley and James Rahon are two other solid guards in the rotation, both of whom shoot either 40% of better from three. If UConn can keep the Aztecs off of the offensive glass they have a chance to win in a near-road environment. But once again the youngsters will need to step up, something they've made a habit of doing the last seven games. SDSU has never been this far as a program but don't expect them to tighten up as a result.
9:45 PM (5) Arizona vs. (1) Duke (CBS)
How they got here
Duke: W 87-45 over Hampton and 73-71 over Michigan
Arizona: W 77-75 over Memphis and 70-69 over Texas
Two more All-American candidates will be on display in the nightcap in Duke's Nolan Smith and Arizona's Derrick Williams. Just like Connecticut the Blue Devils could be in store for an environment that feels like a road game; Arizona has a sizable alumni base in the Los Angeles area and that could give the Wildcats a boost. But Duke's bigger issue is how to contain Williams, who shoots 60% from the field and 58% from three on the season. Arizona gets the sophomore the ball in a variety of ways, from on the block to on the perimeter where he can either attack off the dribble or knock down perimeter shots.
As a team the Wildcats shoot nearly 40% from three, with players such as Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, MoMo Jones and Kevin Parrom all having the ability to knock down shots. Arizona is also one of the best teams in the country when it comes to defending the three, allowing opponents to shoot just 29% on the season. Both teams score at least 29% of their points from beyond the arc but thanks in large part to Williams the Wildcats have scored more points from the foul line. The key for Arizona is to make sound decisions with the basketball, because although their averages aren't high with regards to turnovers that have been times when the backcourt has played a bit out of control.
That can be a serious problem against Duke given the presence of Smith combined with the return of Kyrie Irving. Irving had his issues last weekend due to rust on the part of both he and his teammates, who hadn't played with him since early in the season. Look for the freshman to have a better chemistry with his teammates on Thursday night. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are both dead-eye shooters when left alone but they could struggle given the way in which Arizona defends the three. Duke's frontcourt will be important and not just for what the Plumlee brothers do defensively against Williams.
Kyle Singler has struggled of late from the field, shooting better than 50% just once in the last eight games. The senior also shoots 31.6% from three on the season, the lowest percentage of his career at Duke. Arizona, in addition to Hill and Parrom, has a solid defender in Jamelle Horne who can match up with Singler when called upon. An accurate Singler makes Duke that much better of an offensive team, so it would come as no surprise if the Blue Devils ran a play or two early to get him going. The combination of Duke's sustained excellence and the lack of respect for the Pac-10 may lead some to underestimate Sean Miller's team. But they're more than capable of beating Duke despite the gap in experience, and Williams is a big reason why.